Łódź Art Museum Illustrates Polish Government’s Cultural Policy Failures

By Piotr Kosiewski (published in collaboration with the ideaForum of the Batory Foundation)

The Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage recently announced an open competition for the recruitment of a new director of the Art Museum (Muzeum Sztuki) in Łódź. This could be a chance to avert the crisis the government has created over the past few months.

But there is one condition: the recruitment process itself must be well organised, the selected person having the necessary knowledge and skills to guarantee the smooth running of one of the most important cultural institutions not only in Poland, but in the whole region.

The example of the Łódź Art Museum illustrates well the cultural policy of the government of the united right, but also its attitude towards public institutions and the state itself. Last year, the Ministry of Culture announced that it would not allow Jarosław Suchan, director of the museum since his selection after a competitive procedure in 2006, to continue for another term.

The Art Museum under his leadership not only regained the position that Ryszard Stanisławski, its legendary director between 1966 and 1990, had carved out, but also became a serious point of reference for many similar institutions in Poland and around the world. Not only has its programming activity been excellent in terms of exhibitions, publications and academic research, but it has also been hailed as an example of good management.

Finally, the Art Museum was considered one of the best museum education institutions in Poland. Suchan also oversaw the development of a collaboration with the world’s most important museums, unrivaled among Polish institutions, including the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, the Center Pompidou in Paris, the Tate in London and the Museum of Modern. Art (MoMA) in New York.

This has made it possible to present works inaccessible for years to the Polish public, such as the one from last year Avant-Garde Museum exhibition featuring the works of Marcel Duchamp, Natalia Goncharova, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich, considered one of the most important museum events in the country in recent years.

But above all, international contacts have helped to promote Polish art in the world, as in the case of the important exhibition Avant-garde Polish: Kobro and Strzemiński at the Center Pompidou or the recent presentation Katarzyna Kobro, Shaping Space at MoMA, where the works of the Polish sculptor have been temporarily included in the permanent exhibition of the mythical New York museum.

As Maria Poprzęcka noted during a session of the Senate Culture and Media Committee devoted to the Łódź Museum on July 19, 2022, it was the Art Museum under Suchan’s leadership that succeeded in tell the still unknown story of art in our part of Europe in the most important artistic institutions.

Its status was also confirmed in some way by Suchan’s invitation to the Bizot group, which brings together some sixty directors of the world’s greatest museums, including the Louvre, the British Museum and the Vatican Museums. The Art Museum is one of three institutions in the region to join.

The failure to nominate Suchan for a new term came as a surprise, but the decision to appoint him acting director provided an opportunity for stabilization and time for a new museum director to be selected without haste. Yet despite a contract signed by the ministry until the end of 2022, he was dismissed overnight in April without any specific reason being given.

In his place, also as acting director, Andrzej Biernacki, 64, was appointed – a painter who had overseen the private Browarna Gallery in Łowicz since 1991. The decision to place another acting director in the role increased temporary state. But what is most surprising is the person chosen who, despite his age, had previously run only a small private gallery of purely local importance.

He lacked the knowledge and experience to hold the position of director of a large, complex institution with an international agenda. There was also a conflict of interest, because the Code of Ethics of the International Council of Museums stipulates that museum employees “should not enter into competition with their institution either in the acquisition of objects or in any personal collecting activity. “.

Not only does Biernacki run a private gallery (which has now been suspended), but he also has his own collection which is also on public display.

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Finally, the first declarations of the new interim director showed not only that he lacks fundamental knowledge about working in a museum, but also that he has a weak understanding of the institution he leads. He has pledged, among other things, that works by foreign artists will not be purchased, although the Art Museum is the only museum in Poland whose program since its inception has combined emerging Polish art with works artists from other countries.

Biernacki also promised that henceforth international cooperation would be “on his terms”, suggesting a lack of basic knowledge about maintaining such ties. Suchan’s treatment by the ministry, the choice of his successor, and concerns over the museum’s future sparked widespread protest.

Personalities from the museum world, including the directors of the Tate – Maria Balshaw, of the MoMA – Glenn D. Lowry, and of the Guggenheim – Richard Armstrong, have written to the Minister of Culture on this subject.

Meanwhile, the French daily Release published a letter signed by nearly 150 representatives of the world’s top institutions dealing with the collection and promotion of modern art.

Within weeks, the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage succeeded in undermining the prestige and confidence of an institution that had taken many years of work and effort to build (as well as funds, including public money).

Worse still, in an interview with the Polish News Agency (PAP), Culture Minister Piotr Gliński admitted that the main reason for Biernacki’s appointment was his opinions.

The fact that he “referred to a sovereign thought on art – to artistic freedom, and not to become dependent on various backgrounds or pressures from world institutions where ideological novelties, mainly from the liberal left, were preferred , even pushed, and sometimes – with the help of political correctness – forced”.

It seemed that the Art Museum was inexorably joining the ranks of institutions whose patrons are appointed primarily for ideological reasons, without taking into account their skills or experience. Almost as a rule, this is done without a competition procedure – although, significantly, the ministry itself requires open recruitment procedures from institutions run by local authorities.

This practice applies to a growing number of institutions, although it can lead to marginalization and sometimes even institutional collapse – the National Museum in Warsaw, the Stary Theater in Krakow and the National Film Archive are such examples of Gliński’s tenure.

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The actions of the Ministry of Culture since the united right-wing government came to power in 2015 have thus aggravated the already flawed, non-transparent and non-meritocratic personnel policy in public institutions. Moreover, as Gliński openly admits, it is based on principles of dividing institutions into “ours” and “yours” (with “our” and “not our” directors), thus undermining the sense of community. and the fact that they are institutions belonging to all citizens.

Moreover, such a policy encourages patronage relations and the development of self-censorship reflexes among cultural managers, of which we already have examples.

This makes the decision to declare a competition open to appoint a new director of the Łódź Art Museum even more significant. The result could be not only the appointment of a “director with a very good program”, as Deputy Culture Minister Jarosław Sellin pointed out before the aforementioned Senate Committee, but also the beginning of a restoration of confidence in the museum itself.

It would also be good if the procedure provided an opportunity for a serious discussion on the program between the Ministry of Culture and the Marshal of the Province of Łódź. The Art Museum is administered jointly by these two authorities, and it was the Marshal’s opposition that blocked Suchan’s reappointment. Even the ministry does not know what caused this opposition, as Sellin made clear during the committee meeting.

The lack of discussion of a nomination to one of Poland’s most important cultural institutions – and that in a province ruled by the nationally ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party – seems surprising. More than anything, it raises the question of the role of the ministry itself, which boasts of taking over from local authorities in the co-management of cultural institutions.

Shouldn’t its role be more to co-construct a cultural policy? After all, it is not just about appointing specific individuals to positions and covering the costs of maintaining other institutions.

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The original version of this article is available here. Translated by Ben Koschalka.

Main image credit: Marcin Polak/Flickr (under CC BY 2.0)

Piotr Kosiewski is an art critic and journalist, as well as deputy director of the ideaForum of the Stefan Batory Foundation.

Mildred D. Field